Saturday 26 May 2018

From Easter 1916 to the Hollywood hills

Two fighters - a rebel and a British soldier - found fame in the movies

Pearse's surrender: Future film actor Major John Lowe (far left).
Pearse's surrender: Future film actor Major John Lowe (far left).

David Lawlor

When the actor Arthur Shields strode towards Dublin's Abbey Theatre on Easter Monday, 1916, it was with one intent - not to rehearse or act in a play, but to collect his rifle and take part in the greater drama that was about to shake the streets.

Once armed, Shields went around the corner to Liberty Hall and joined with James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army before marching up to Sackville Street, where he was stationed in the Metropole Hotel (now Penneys).

By April 28, he and the rest of the men there would have to abandon their positions and join the other rebels inside the GPO, which was already on fire. They didn't stay there very long. Shields and the remaining GPO garrison - Pádraig Pearse included - retreated to Moore Street.

There, they moved from house to house, knocking through walls between the houses' basements. Shields and six others would eventually find themselves hiding out at the back of Hanlon's fish shop (16 Moore Street).

They were told they would be the first line when the planned breakout occurred. In the end, the breakout was abandoned and surrender was chosen, to avoid further bloodshed. Had that not been the case, the movie world might have been deprived of a very fine actor.

After his capture, Shields, alongside Michael Collins, was sent to Frongoch prison camp in Wales. Both men would find themselves back in Dublin by the end of the year - Collins with a mission to destroy British rule and Shields with a mission to entertain and enthral on the Abbey stage.

It is at this point that the story of Shields becomes even more interesting. Acting was clearly in his blood - his brother William was also an actor (he would change his name to Barry Fitzgerald and go on to have a stellar career in film, even winning an Oscar).

Both men would journey to the States and appear in legendary director John Ford's film of The Plough and the Stars (Shields played Pádraig Pearse), released in 1936. It would be the beginning of a long relationship with the movie director.

Shields appeared in The Quiet Man alongside his brother and both Maureen O'Hara and John Wayne; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Wayne and O'Hara), and Long Voyage Home (Wayne again and Barry Fitzgerald).

Shields had a priestly quality to him that was useful for his role in the clerical flick The Keys of the Kingdom, but he played many more roles. He died in California in 1970, aged 74.

You might think that one burgeoning Hollywood actor taking part in the Rising would be enough, but there was another, on the British side.

That old adage about every picture telling a story is a bit wide of the mark - some pictures can tell a whole lot more than one. Just take a look at this famous photograph from the Rising, taken on April 29, 1916, of Pearse surrendering to the commander of British Forces in Dublin, Major General William Lowe. There's Pearse in the cape. Beside him, but obscured from view, is Elizabeth O'Farrell, a nurse with Cumann na mBan. It was O'Farrell who would carry the subsequent surrender notes to the other rebel commandants around the city.

In the original version of this image, all that could be seen of O'Farrell were her feet, visible beneath Pearse's cape. They looked incongruous or cropped out, so they were removed and poor Elizabeth lost her place in history - for a while. Her heroism was recently remembered by naming a bridge across the Liffey in her honour.

But there is another intriguing point to the picture. A tall man on the left is General Lowe's aide-de-camp and son, Major John Lowe, a man who would have just as remarkable a life story as Shields after the Rising.

Lowe had already seen service in Gallipoli and Egypt. He arrived in Ireland just a few days before the outbreak of the rebellion to take up his new appointment as aide-de-camp to his father, who set up his military headquarters in Dublin Castle.

In his autobiography, Hollywood Hussar, Lowe Jr speaks in broad terms about the civilian deaths and the fighting in the capital, but saves the detail for a fascinating nugget about Pearse. Once the surrender had been accepted, Major Lowe brought Pearse, accompanied by a priest, by staff car to Kilmainham Gaol. He recalls the rebel poet giving his watch and ring to the priest to be forwarded to his family.

Lowe showed some compassion by asking the driver to continue past the Gaol's gates so Pearse would have more time to pass on last messages. As a token of his gratitude, Pearse gave the Major his cap badge as a keepsake, but, according to Lowe, the badge was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940.

The Major's military career didn't end in Dublin. Lowe later saw service at the Somme.

After the war, he decided to remain in Germany to run a pickle factory, but soon turned to acting in movies. Naturally, his father, the General, was aghast, so the wayward son changed his name and became John Loder.

Tall, good-looking and debonair, he managed to get a few small parts before setting his sights on Hollywood, where, in 1929, he appeared in Paramount's first talkie, The Doctor's Secret. He returned to England to do some more acting and, during WWII, went back to Hollywood as a supporting actor. For almost 50 years he would have roles in a plethora of films, including King Solomon's Mines.

Loder clearly liked the ladies, and married five times - one of his spouses being the Hollywood screen goddess Hedy Lamarr. His final wife was an Argentinian heiress on whose ranch in California he lived until his death in 1988, aged 90.

Shields and Loder may have taken opposite sides during the Rising, but they found a common refuge on the movie backlots of Hollywood. One suspects, though, that the greatest role of each of their lives was played on the streets of Dublin in 1916.

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